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Personal Stories: Michelle’s Story

Breaking the Cycle of Hepatitis B Infections from Mother-to-Child

Michelle is one of 1.25 million Americans who live with chronic hepatitis B. Michelle was born in 1969 to an American father and Vietnamese mother, who had met and married during the Vietnam War.

She grew up healthy and happy in Kentucky, unaware that her mother had unknowingly passed on the hepatitis B virus to her at birth. When Michelle was born, there was no hepatitis B vaccine available to prevent this infection. Had she been immunized within 12 hours of birth, she would be free of infection today.

“I found out about my infection through a routine blood test during my first pregnancy in 2000,” Michelle said. Kentucky is one of the few states in the country that require pregnant women to be screened for hepatitis B. “The nurse called me at home to tell me my hepatitis B test had come back positive. I immediately thought it was a lab error.”

“Eight years earlier, I had donated blood and was told that I had hepatitis B. I was re-tested and they told me I had never been exposed to hepatitis B and was free of infection,” she recalled.
But after the hepatitis B test came back positive during her pregnancy, Michelle went to see a specialist for more tests. This time, he confirmed she had chronic hepatitis B. Most teens and adults infected with the hepatitis B virus experience only a brief or acute infection. However, when newborns like Michelle are infected, they face a 90 percent risk of developing a chronic or life-long hepatitis B infection.

“Needless to say, after my diagnosis I experienced the emotional succession of denial, depression and then acceptance of my hepatitis B infection,” she said.

Her immediate concern was to make sure her newborn daughter would not be infected with hepatitis B.

“During my delivery, I made sure the hospital staff was aware of my hepatitis B, and I constantly reminded them to make sure my baby received the hepatitis B vaccine within 12 hours of her birth, which prevents mother-to-child infection 90 percent of the time.

Fortunately, the hospital staff was on top of things and my daughter was vaccinated properly and today is free of hepatitis B.”

Michelle’s husband also tested negative for hepatitis B after her diagnosis and was quickly vaccinated.

After much pressuring, Michelle had her parents tested for hepatitis B. “When my mom asked her doctor to test her for hepatitis B, her doctor asked ‘Why?’ He saw no reason to test her, even though Asian-Americans are at extremely high risk of hepatitis B.”

Her mother’s hepatitis B test came back positive. Later that year, Michelle found out that her maternal grandmother, who lives in the United States, also tested positive for hepatitis B. “After this revelation, our family history came pouring out,” Michelle explained. “I learned that another of my mom's sisters also has hepatitis B, as do other family members.

Vietnam, like other countries in Asia, has very high rates of chronic hepatitis B infection, which is why one in eight Vietnamese-Americans has chronic hepatitis B. Hepatitis B is the second-leading cause of cancer death in Vietnamese-American men because it is often not diagnosed or treated until serious liver disease has occurred.”

Today, Michelle has a second child, who was also promptly vaccinated at birth and remains free of hepatitis B.

“Knowing that both my children were properly immunized against hepatitis B at birth gave me great confidence that they would be free of hepatitis B,” said Michelle. “Sadly though, this means that only my children’s branch of my family tree will be free of hepatitis B. I wish I could say the same for the rest.”

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